Power Grab: Instagram, a Case in Point

Instagram/FacebookIt is hard to find an on-line IT magazine that did not cover the Instagram terms of use debacle that occurred mid-December. In short, Instagram changed its terms of use, it did not go unnoticed, strong negative reactions were widely reported and Instagram reverted some of the changes – and this is where many of the published articles on the subject stop.

I would like to offer an interpretation of these events, to provide a wider context and in doing so highlight their meaning and purpose. At Instagram they claimed they were misunderstood:

Since making these changes, we’ve heard loud and clear that many users are confused and upset about what the changes mean.

What was the cause of the misunderstanding? This was written in the new Terms of Use:

You agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.” (emphasis added by me)

There was, in fact, no misunderstanding here. Another way of putting it would be “business X may pay Instagram to use photos of author Y [in a business context] without compensation to author Y”.

My impression is that about a month ago, a group of decision makers at Instagram sat down in a meeting, prepared a draft of the new terms of use, evaluated how likely a backlash was, how strong it might be and concluded they would give it a try and drop it if the backlash is too damaging. Following the lead of their new owner, they bet that no one reads the fine print of one of hundreds or thousands of on-line services people use, even if they mention the “improvements”. They also bet that if someone actually does notice, it won’t get a lot of attention…which is where they made a mistake.

This is not an isolated incident. Instagram is paying the PR price because they crossed a line which has been defined and pushed over the last ten or so years by the likes of Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Skype and Amazon. These transnationals have, if not invented, then certainly refined and improved a power grabbing strategy the likes of which the world has never seen before (J. Assange describes it as “the greatest theft in human history”). What they do is find ways to grease the slippery slope of trading customers’ long term costs for immediate convenience and gratification. Just tell us about your friends and family, your preferences, your whereabouts, your opinions and feelings and in return we will seamlessly sync your phone with your laptop, remind you of birthdays of people you know and suggests just the right products to buy. Just give us full control over devices we sell to you, allow us to use them to spy on you and we promise to keep them virus-free and all the applications will look sleek.

A frequent trade-off is privacy for convenience and it works because convenience is delivered immediately and the cost of privacy loss is vague and far away. Facebook did not pay a billion dollars for Instagram on a whim. They have plans to monetise the service and it looks like they got too greedy too fast. Instead of trading immediate gratification for abstract costs in the distant future, they went after a right whose loss users feel right away: namely, copyright on something authors both love and sell – their photos.


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